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University of Exeter Medical School

Dr. Sam Hughes

Dr. Sam Hughes

Senior Lecturer in Pain Neuroscience


 Medical School Building G09


Medical School Building, St Luke's Campus, Magdalen Road, Exeter, EX1 2LU, UK


Research carried out in my lab focuses on measuring activity in descending pain modulation systems using psychophysical and neurophysiological techniques. We are interested in using this information alongside mechanistic multimodal data derived from human surrogate pain models to help identify risk factors for developing chronic pain and to help assess the mechanisms and therapeutic efficacy of novel centrally acting pain therapies.

I am one of the founding members of the UK Chronic Pain Neurotechnology Network (CPNN+): A UKRI-funded academic-clinical-patient network+ dedicated to next-generation neurotechnology for chronic pain launched in 2022 ( 

I am the co-lead of the Exeter Brain Network and co-lead of the neuroscience research theme in the Department of Clinical and Biomedical Sciences.

I helped to establish the Exeter Pain Group, which comprises experts from various fields, including neuroscience, psychology, data science and clinical medicine with a view to understand phenotypic characteristics of pain conditions and to help inform more effective pain management. 


I have a BSc in Pharmacology (1st class) from University College London and a PhD in Systems Neuroscience from the University of Bristol. During my PhD, I researched descending noradrenergic control systems during neuropathic pain in the labs of Prof Tony Pickering and Prof Bridget Lumb.

After my PhD, I moved to Imperial College London, where I spent four years using non-invasive brain stimulation techniques in sciatica patients and in human pain models in Dr Paul Strutton’s lab. I then moved to Kings College London to start a research fellowship (Kings Prize/Anthony Mellow Award) investigating the effects of non-invasive deep brain stimulation on the sensitisation of central nociceptive pathways with Dr Matthew Howard. 

In 2020 I joined the University of Plymouth as a Lecturer and started the Pain Modulation Lab at the Brain Research and Imaging Centre (BRIC). In 2022, I joined the University of Exeter as a Senior Lecturer in Pain Neuroscience.

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Research interests

We use a number of techniques to measure top-down modulation within central nociceptive pathways (e.g., quantitative sensory testing, neurophysiological assessment of spinal and brainstem reflexes, immersive virtual reality, non-invasive brain stimulation) alongside human pain models.

We currently have three broad areas of interest:

1) Immersive virtual reality-based analgesia 

We are interested in understanding how immersive virtual reality can be used to harness the therapeutic effects of nature. We are interested in understanding how natural environments interact with key endogenous analgesic circtuiry in the brain, brainstem and spinal cord using human pain models, neurophysiology and neuroimaging techqniues. We are also interested in understanding how this approach can be used to manage chronic pain using mixed-methods approaches in patient groups. Collaborators: Dr Kayleigh Wyles (University of Plymouth); Dr Giorgio Ganis (University of Plymouth); Prof Patricia Schofiled (University of Plymouth)

2) Non-invasive deep brain stimulation of pain-related brain regions

We are using transcranial ultrasound stimulation to harness endogenous analgesic activity in deeper brain regions using a combination of neuroimaging, neurophysiology and human pain models. Collaborators: Dr Elsa Fouragnan

3) Assessment of mechanisms and therapeutic efficacy of centrally-acting pharmacological agents 

We are interested in using a battery of neurophysiological tests (e.g. spinal and brainstem nociceptive reflexes alongside cortical EEG) to assess the mechanisms of centrally acting pharmacological approaches. We are particulalry interested in understanding how psychedelic-based therapies work to alleviate pain. Collaborators: Prof Celia Morgan (University of Exeter); Dr Alex Shaw (University of Exeter). 

Research projects


2024 - 2028: Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Multi-site and state-dependent effects of Transcranial Ultrasound Stimulation on brain function and cognition. £1,223,819.81 (Co-Investigator)

2022 – 2025: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Neurotechnology for Chronic Pain. £1,161,841.47 (Co-Investigator).

2022 – 2024: Academy of Medical Sciences Springboard Award. Virtually painless? Steps towards mechanism-driven use of immersive virtual reality for chronic pain. £98,156.00 (Principal Investigator).

2019 – 2020: The Pain Relief Foundation. The effects of non-invasive brain stimulation on chronic pain and central sensitisation in patients with radicular low-back pain (sciatica): a randomised, sham-controlled proof-of-principle study. £21,207. (Co-investigator).

2022 – 2023: Plymouth Institute of Health and Care Research (PIHR). The effects of transcranial ultrasound stimulation of the anterior cingulate cortex in a human model of secondary hyperalgesia: a pilot study. £2,947.60. (Co-investigator).

2020 – 2024: Kings Prize/Anthony Mellow Fellowship. Harnessing brain and brainstem mechanisms of secondary hyperalgesia. £148,601. (Principal Investigator).

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Journal articles

Bannister K, Hughes S (2023). One size does not fit all: towards optimising the therapeutic potential of endogenous pain modulatory systems. Pain, 164(1), e5-e9.  Author URL.
Fawsitt-Jones H, Vollert J, O'Daly O, Williams SCR, McMahon SB, Howard MA, Hughes SW (2023). Reliability of quantitative sensory testing in the assessment of somatosensory function after high-frequency stimulation–induced sensitisation of central nociceptive pathways. Pain, 165(4), 941-950. Abstract.
Wong F, Reddy A, Rho Y, Vollert J, Strutton PH, Hughes SW (2023). Responders and nonresponders to topical capsaicin display distinct temporal summation of pain profiles. PAIN Reports, 8(3), e1071-e1071. Abstract.
Mehesz E, Karoui H, Strutton PH, Hughes SW (2021). Exposure to an Immersive Virtual Reality Environment can Modulate Perceptual Correlates of Endogenous Analgesia and Central Sensitization in Healthy Volunteers. JOURNAL OF PAIN, 22(6), 707-714.  Author URL.
Hughes SW, Ward G, Strutton PH (2020). Anodal transcranial direct current stimulation over the primary motor cortex attenuates capsaicin-induced dynamic mechanical allodynia and mechanical pain sensitivity in humans. EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF PAIN, 24(6), 1130-1137.  Author URL.
Hughes SW, Basra M, Chan C, Parr C, Wong F, Gomes S, Strutton PH (2020). Capsaicin-Induced Changes in Electrical Pain Perception Threshold can be Used to Assess the Magnitude of Secondary Hyperalgesia in Humans. PAIN MEDICINE, 21(11), 2830-2838.  Author URL.
Hughes SW, Hellyer PJ, Sharp DJ, Newbould RD, Patel MC, Strutton PH (2020). Diffusion tensor imaging of lumbar spinal nerves reveals changes in microstructural integrity following decompression surgery associated with improvements in clinical symptoms: a case report. MAGNETIC RESONANCE IMAGING, 69, 65-70.  Author URL.
Hughes SW, Zhao H, Auvinet EJ, Strutton PH (2019). Attenuation of capsaicin-induced ongoing pain and secondary hyperalgesia during exposure to an immersive virtual reality environment. PAIN Reports, 4(6), e790-e790. Abstract.
Hughes SW, Hellyer PJ, Sharp DJ, Newbould RD, Patel MC, Strutton PH (2019). Diffusion tensor imaging reveals changes in microstructural integrity along compressed nerve roots that correlate with chronic pain symptoms and motor deficiencies in elderly stenosis patients. NeuroImage: Clinical, 23, 101880-101880.
Hughes S, Grimsey S, Strutton PH (2019). Primary Motor Cortex Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Modulates Temporal Summation of the Nociceptive Withdrawal Reflex in Healthy Subjects. PAIN MEDICINE, 20(6), 1156-1165.  Author URL.
Hughes SW, Ali M, Sharma P, Insan N, Strutton PH (2018). Frequency‐dependent top‐down modulation of temporal summation by anodal transcranial direct‐current stimulation of the primary motor cortex in healthy adults. European Journal of Pain, 22(8), 1494-1501. Abstract.
Hughes S, Hickey L, Donaldson LF, Lumb BM, Pickering AE (2015). Intrathecal reboxetine suppresses evoked and ongoing neuropathic pain behaviours by restoring spinal noradrenergic inhibitory tone. PAIN, 156(2), 328-334.  Author URL.
Hughes SW, Hickey L, Hulse RP, Lumb BM, Pickering AE (2013). Endogenous analgesic action of the pontospinal noradrenergic system spatially restricts and temporally delays the progression of neuropathic pain following tibial nerve injury. Pain, 154(9), 1680-1690.

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External Engagement and Impact


2014: Faculty of Biomedical Sciences Commendation for PhD thesis (University of Bristol)

2018: Nominated for a Student Academic Choice Award for ‘Project Supervision’ (Imperial College London).

2019: Anthony Mellows Medal (Kings College London)

2021: Nominated for ‘Personal Tutor of the Year’ (University of Plymouth).

Editorial responsibilities

  • Frontiers in Pain Research (Editorial Board)

Invited lectures

  • European Pain Federation (EFIC)
  • Aalborg University (Denmark)
  • Kings College London (Wolfson CARD seminar series)
  • British Pain Society (BPS)

Media Coverage

Daily Telegraph: Immersive Arctic images can slash pain, scientists find.

Daily Mail: Watching soothing 360-degree scenes of the Arctic in virtual reality can help to ease chronic pain, scientists claim

Interview on BBC radio Cornwall on the use of immersive virtual reality in pain research (2021).

Featured on the British Psychological Society podcast on the topic of ‘how to cope with pain’.

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I teach on topics related to pain and sensory neuroscience and regulalry host lab based projects on human pain neurophysiology for BSc and MSc dissertations. I am a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA).



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Supervision / Group

Postdoctoral researchers

  • Sophie Clarke
  • Sonia Medina Hernandez

Postgraduate researchers

  • Josh Murphy

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